5 Techniques for Improving Heart Rate Variability
Updated: Oct 6, 2018
Breathing, Hot & Cold Therapy, Yoga, and Meditation
For those of you who don’t know, heart rate variability (HRV) is a marker we can use to measure nervous system recovery. This correlates with better ability to focus, calm feelings, and a sense of well being. It is also important for recovery from exercise and hormone function. Measuring heart rate variability is not complicated but does require a heart rate monitor. Regardless, there are some simple ways to improve your HRV that both help you feel good and are good for you.
Breathing Exercises: Most people do not breath properly, even athletes, and learning to breathe correctly has a host of benefits. The basic rules for breathing properly are that you should breath through your nose and should take full breaths. Sounds simple, right? And it is! Except that without conscious practice, you will revert back to old habits. Breathing is a primarily subconsious activity. You can practice your breathing, and improve your HRV, with an exercise called box-breathing. Basically, inhale for 4 seconds, making sure to fill your belly and then your lungs with air. Hold your breath for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, steadily and slowly, and hold for 4 seconds. With time, try to increase to 5 seconds per segment. Start integrating this practice in the morning by spending 5 minutes box breathing. You should treat the activity as a sort of meditation. Whenever your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath, gently and without judgement. As with many things, consistency is more powerful than duration. Box breathing for up to 20 minutes per session can be a powerful way to start your day, but I would rather you do 5 minutes every day than do 20 minutes and skip days.
Meditation: I’ll keep this one brief since we already covered box breathing, but meditation has a host of mental and physical health benefits. I like box breathing in the morning as a meditation, but you can also learn to do other forms of meditation such as transcendental meditation, where you focus on a word or phrase, or you can try other forms. Contrary to popular belief, meditation is not complex. Really, it’s just the act of stopping for a moment to clear your thoughts. Consistency is better than duration, again, so meditating daily for 5 minutes is better than meditating once a week fo 20. If you are new to meditation, try downloading the headspace app and doing the free guided meditations.
Yoga: Yoga is one of the best ways to improve your HRV, and soooo many other things. For one, it includes both of our previous tips while also improving your strength, balance, and flexibility. There are also many simple ways to start doing yoga. If you don’t want to join a studio, get a book! I personally use Kokoro Yoga by Mark Divine. Mark is a former Navy Seal and is also a martial artist and yogi, and his yoga book includes some very good advice for breathing as well as both beginner and intermediate yoga sequences. For a beginner, I suggest using youtube to learn the different positions, as the pictures in a book do not show movement, but just getting started is the most important thing.
Cold Showers: Yes, you read that right. Take cold showers. Now, to clarify, this is something most people should ease into, but either way, once you start getting used to it you’ll probably start to enjoy them. Cold showers and cold therapy in general is very good for our nervous systems. It also activates brown adipose fat tissue in our bodies. I’ll translate from nerd: It makes us burn off the unhealthy fat in our bodies. Ice baths and other forms of cold immersion are great too, but what I love about cold showers is that they get you ready for the day and are available to anybody. This trick is used by Tony Robbins, the motivational speaking giant who does 3 day leadership seminars.
Hot Saunas: It would only be fitting to follow cold with hot. Our bodies have systems in place to deal with varying temperature. One of these is known as heat-shock proteins. There are also cold-shock proteins. Both of these lead to increases in human growth hormone. Additionally, saunas help us detoxify by sweating. In particular, infrared saunas are the best, but dry saunas are good too, and more available. Use common sense and don’t over-do it. Heat injury is real, as is cold inury. Spend enough time in a sauna to become uncomfortable but never dizzy. If you feel dizzy or ill, you’ve over done it and stressed your body more than necessary. Be sure to drink plenty of water and electrolytes as well.
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